Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Susan Kaye Quinn On Serials

Last week I launched my future-noir serial, Debt Collector. I've been in love with obsessing about writing this serial since the idea struck me mid-January. Here we are, two months later, and I have four episodes written, one published, and I'm excited about taking this three-month journey across nine episodes with my readers, as  I  we create this series. In the end, I will bundle the season, so that readers who prefer all-at-once-reading to read-as-you-go, can enjoy the series as well. I take all comers! :) Before I embarked on this journey, I had a myriad of questions: how many episodes? How often? How long/short should the stories be? How does this whole "episodic storytelling" work? And most importantly: does anyone actually read these things?

Must Read TV Let's answer the last one first.

People are actually VERY familiar with episodic storytelling via TV. We watch everything from self-contained series like Law&Order and House to broad-story-arc series like Lost or Heroes. Some like the week-by-week suspense of Must Watch TV; others would rather wait until the season is done and get it from netflix so they can watch it back-to-back.

Ok, that's TV. What about books?

Ebook serials are a new thing, because ebooks are a new thing - but serials have been around since Charles Dickens wrote and released Great Expectations (self-published through his own literary magazine!) in 6k "installments" every week for nine months. Readers today aren't accustomed to reading in serial format because publishing serials was restricted to magazines, which were missing two key factors: 1) wide circulation (most magazines don't have it), and 2) a paying market (many ezines are free, and many paper magazines don't pay much for content).

Enter ebooks: low cost of transmission and access to a wide circulation. They're a natural for shorter works. At first, authors dusted off their short stories or wrote new ones... and sometimes those thrived. But for the most part, readers raised on novels craved longer works and more in-depth stories... which made serialization the next natural step. How Long? How Many? How Often?  Sounds like a smexy ad for... okay, we're keeping this PG. :)

Authors are experimenting like crazy right now with serialization. I've seen releases 1 week, 1 month, and 1 quarter apart. Number of episodes range from 5 to 15, length of episodes ranging from 6k to 40k. Forty thousand words! That's... a novel, people. (Note: SFWA defines a novel as 40,000+ words, which is about 160 pages.) So you can see that experimentation is all over the map.

I'm convinced none of that matters, with the slight caveat that the most successful serials to date have released every 1-3 weeks. Who Are The Successful (Indie) Serials? (note: trad-pub authors are also experimenting... see John Scalzi's Human Division)

Hugh Howey's Wool 5 episodes in first set (Wool) - total 530 pages first released as a single, then episodes 2-5 released over 3 months Episodes range from 50 pages to 250 pages (the last one was novel-length) 3 episodes in second set (Shift), 230-280 pages (this is really a trilogy of novels)

Third set (Dust) will be released as a single book

RaShelle Workman's Blood and Snow June 2012 - February 2013 12 episodes, released 2-3 weeks apart Each episode 12k (~50 pages) Total sales: over 130,000

Platt & Wright's Yesterday's Gone Three Seasons so far (fourth on the way) Six episodes per season, released 1-2 weeks apart Each episode 100+ pages

It's All About Story The question of "what makes a successful serial?" is the same as "what makes a successful book?" And the answer is the same: THE STORY

Hugh Howey's serial started as a short story, but he listened to reader demand and wrote more. RaShelle's Fairy-Tale-Turned-Vampire stories brilliantly captured the wave of demand for both those genres. Platt & Wright's post-apoc tale does the same. But all are successful because readers were drawn into the story, not because the format has some special pixie dust that made them successful. The only caveat is that readers can sample a series by trying the first episode or two - if they're hooked, they keep coming back. But as authors, this cuts both ways - readers can also stop buying the next installment at any time.

Once again: it's all about story. If readers like it, they will return. Which is why serialization is not the easy way out (see below).

Can I Sell My Novel In Pieces And Make More Money?

No.

A serial is not a chopped up novel, just like a TV episode is not a chopped up movie. It's a different way of telling stories. In a way, it's more demanding than novels - you need to immediately draw the reader in, you have to reach some kind of reader-satisfaction-level by the end of the episode (even if you have a cliff-hanger), and you have to maintain that pace and storytelling arc over multiple episodes. You can pre-write all your episodes (and some people do), but the successful authors above all wrote-as-they-went, listening to reader feedback along the way.

Serials are the Advanced Ninjitsu of storytelling.
Serials are not the way to make easy money.
Serials are not a short-cut to getting your work out.
Serials ARE a new, exciting way to bring readers closer into the storytelling process and engage them in the creative process.
It's the hardest, best, and most fun writing I've ever done.
Susan Kaye Quinn is the author of the bestselling YA SF Mindjack series. Her new Debt Collector serial is her more grown-up SF. Her steampunk fantasy romance is temporarily on hold while she madly writes episodes to keep Lirium (the titular Debt Collector) happy. Plus she needs to leave time to play on Facebook. Susan has a lot of degrees in engineering, which come in handy when dreaming up dangerous mind powers, future dystopias, and slightly plausible steampunk inventions. Mostly she sits around in her pajamas in awe that she gets make stuff up full-time. You can find her at www.susankayequinn.com What's your life worth on the open market? A debt collector can tell you precisely. Delirium (Debt Collector 1) is now available on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Kobo, iTunes, Smashwords

48 comments:

  1. It's a small point to pick out of all this info, but I'm so glad you mentioned Dickens. Many of the classics were written this way which is why when read as a novel they're so repetitive (and often dull). They were written as installment entertainment the same way Once Upon A Time is and people act like if you don't enjoy them you're less intelligent. Or that abridged versions or somehow lacking, which is probably closer to how they should be read, since most of the repetition wouldn't be there if the author ever thought they'd be published in one volume.

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    1. Very true, Beth - writing serials really is different from novel-telling, where the reader just has to flip the page to the next chapter. There are a lot of similarities, but having to remind the reader of what happened in prior episodes is definitely a departure point.

      Thanks so much for having me on your blog!

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    2. I'm just curious. When you put together the packaged volume, will you take out some of the reminders from the serial installments? Or will you just bundle each serial as is?

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    3. I'm planning on packaging them as-is. Just as when you buy a season on DVD, the episodes are the same as they originally aired. If I had written this as a novel instead of a serial, I would have structured it quite a bit of it differently, not just the small inclusions of reminders about characters or past events. I would have had a different rise-and-fall of action, with climaxes in different places. So, reading the complete serial still preserves the "feel" of serialized storytelling rather than the "feel" of a novel... you just don't have to wait between the episodes! :)

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    4. Susan: When you package them as is, are you going to add say "DVD extras". Like an extra short story or say your thoughts on writing that current season? I've been toying with the serial idea for a bit now. I've got a novel WiP going right now. But I've been bombarded with another idea that would work great more as a serial than a book. It would also free me to be able to do more than one storyline and what not.

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    5. I'm sure I'll include an author note, but I wasn't planning on extras - I don't want readers who've been following along to feel like they have to buy the whole set (again!) to get the bonus stuff.

      Good luck with your story ideas, wherever they take you!

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  2. This has been gaining momentum. Thanks for the great info...again! And Congrats!

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  3. Awesome post, Susan. I've been thinking about serials myself, and it's interesting to see how and when one should consider writing one. I like how you explain the difference between serialization and chopping a novel up into many parts--at the very beginning, that's what I thought a serial novel was, too. I wish you all the best with The Debt Collector--I think this one's going to rise to fame, personally. :D
    Sandhya aka Adriana Ryan

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    1. Thank you Adriana! I think writers - as much as readers - are rediscovering the form, so we're playing with it, making it new, all over again. As with anything, the people who figure out how to do it well (from a reader perspective) will shine as examples for others to follow. But I love that we can experiment and find our own styles!

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    2. Thanks for stopping by Adriana. I love how ebooks are giving everything a comeback!

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  4. I keep watching... still determined to use this somewhere... I did my fan fiction serial and used some reader feedback, but anymore I don't feel as confident in my early drafts... still, I think I could prett easily do a hybrid--have most of the story written but room to tweak with feedback.

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    1. I understand the hesitation, Hart! And I was convinced (last summer) that I could never do something like this, just because I'm always tweaking things in drafts of my novels. This is a different kind of beast, though. And I'm already glad, even with just 1 episode out (the second just released) that I'm doing the serial, precisely for the reader feedback. For example, I see reviewers asking certain kinds of questions already in the first episode - one I was planning on answering, but later, maybe in ep 4 or 5. Now, I've moved that up to ep3, because I know they're looking for it - and it doesn't change the narrative arc in a substantial way. That kind of reader-interaction (as well as other fun stuff, like giveaways and FB posts), really inspires the writing as well. But it's something you need to have a certain confidence level to jump into - or just craziness. :)

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  5. I'm fascinated by the idea of serials, though I don't think they are something I would write or read. Still, I love that authors are using the technology available and shift in the model to reinvent old ways of publishing. Kudos to you.

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    1. Thanks Sarah! Maybe you'll give one of the serials linked above a try, see if you like it. I highly recommend Wool - and the first episode is free! Hugh Howey just finished a US tour with his hardback release (a ground breaking deal with Simon & Schuster, turning his NYTimes bestselling ebook serial into paper book that readers are clamoring for).

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  6. Susan, I thought of a question I had. You've said that you're dividing this serial up into three volumes (with each volume containing three "episodes"), and each "season" will have nine episodes total. Could you talk about how and why you decided to divide up your story this way?

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    1. That's a great question!

      Three is a natural number for storytelling (three acts), but there are lots of ways to spread the narrative arc. I think of ebook serials as a mashup between TV episodic storytelling and traditional book-series-storytelling, so I looked for ways to borrow the best from both. The best from TV is definitely the depth that each self-contained episode can dive into - we can have a whole episode that's about one character's flaws or backstory. Whereas the best from written storytelling is the longer narrative arc, the immersion in the larger story.

      Having just finished writing a trilogy (Mindjack), the three act structure (within novels, but also across series) is familiar ground for me. As I was writing the first few episodes (I'm on Ep5 now), I quickly realized that the three-sets-of-three structure (nine episodes) would work for the serial as well. Mashing that together with episodes actually allows me to go in-depth a little more than I could in a novel framework, while still maintaining the tension and pacing over the longer story arc.

      It's the hardest writing I've ever loved. :)

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    2. Ah, that makes sense. Thank you for explaining that!

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  7. Definitely not a shortcut! Mine are novelettes (greater than 10,000 words, less than 17,000). I published the first in October of last year, and will publish the third soon. I'm a fan of the Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood universe, and that's what inspired these. (Set in rural Texas with less sex and more action.)

    Mine are complete stories in and of themselves (no big cliff hangers per say), with a full plot, climax, resolution, etc. They just take place in the same universe with reoccurring characters and continuing plot threads. To do all of that in around 15k words takes a good deal of time and massaging. I pay very close attention to pacing as I want them to be read quickly. I definitely take pointers from my favorite television series episodes--like Walking Dead--but also utilize things I've learned from reading comic books most of my life. (Those comic folks are masters of serialized storytelling.)

    Love looking at these as 'seasons' btw! That terminology hadn't crossed my radar, but I think it's an accurate way of conceptualizing them. Mine are 3 episode seasons, I suppose. :)

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    1. EJ - I figure we can beg/borrow/steal/invent whatever terminology works, right? :)

      I love the idea of comic books and the great serialized storytelling they use! I admit to not reading comics (heavily; I've read a few), but now I'm thinking I should shuffle off and do that! :)

      I like the idea of recurring characters but possibly separate stories as well - I'm actually skyping with some authors today to talk about doing a serial where different authors write each "episode" but all withing the same universe.

      I simply love the creativity that this allows, letting writers invent their own sandboxes to play in (or play together in)!

      Best of luck with your serial!

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    2. EJ, that sounds like the same approach I'm taking. I haven't published the first one yet but I have four episodes done and plan to have a fifth to complete the series. I hope to launch them in a couple of months. Mine are 20-22,000 words each with a full story arch and continuing characters and themes. I also try to keep the same pacing so that readers, like viewers to shows like Law and Order, know what to expect in terms of how the story will flow. The hope is that each story in this adult romance series has characters and themes people will want to return to. We shall see!

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  8. I'm so glad you mentioned Charles Dickens. He was the first name that came to mind when I read the title of the post. It's interesting to see how authors are writing serials for today's market.

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    1. It's even more interesting to see how readers respond to it! It's a collaborative thing, this writing and reading for entertainment. :)

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  9. really insightful post, Susan. Thanks for sharing all your research!

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  10. I definitely want to read these, but I'm going to wait for the bundling. Congrats to Susan!

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  11. I've heard some about serials but I didn't know that much about them -- until now. Thanks for the post! I'm really interested in this idea. I love series but the time between books is generally painful, so having shorter stories (episodes) and shorter time between releases sounds wonderful. The Debt Collector sounds great too :)

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    1. I didn't know much about modern serials before Susan guest posted for me either. What's interesting to me is that Susan writes sci-fi and so are several of her examples, but I think serials would work really well in the romance genre where readers are already known to a) love series and b)hate to see their couples disappear.

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    2. Serials are really big in romance - I just don't read much in that genre, so I can't point you to good indie examples. But they're there! Romance indie writers are waaay out ahead of the rest of us.

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  12. Very cool, and um, smexy!
    It's funny and ironic, because the going writing wisdom for so long was NOT to write in "episodes". But, hey, rules are made to be broken, and I applaud the return of the episodic installment.

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    1. As soon as something becomes a "rule," I think you can be pretty sure it's about to be broken. :)

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    2. @Catherine Everything is making a come back! I love all the options writers have today!

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  13. Personally, I love the idea of episodes like this. I'm a major fan of short chapters, so this is totally up my alley. You're actually inspiring me to give this method a try. It makes sense, from both a creative view as well as marketing/financially. So proud of your verve to do this. Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom, Susan!

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    1. Thank you Sheri! I hear a lot of people thinking about trying this out, so it's exciting to be in the middle of that! :)

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  14. I've been thinking about doing this for a while now. But I'm terrified of it! I'm terrified that it will just fall flat on its face. I don't have to time to market as much as you do, and that is a BIG part of making a serial successful too. The constant link to readers. I think I will remain being afraid for a while ... but I'm so impressed with you and Debt Collector. I certainly know who to approach for advice if I ever decide to do it!

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    1. You know I'm always happy to share my thoughts! :)

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  15. This was a great post, Susan! As you know, I have launched a supernatural serial called In Darkness We Must Abide and I'm having so much fun! It's definitely a new way at looking at storytelling, which makes it fresh and new for me as well as the reader. I'm definitely regarding each installment as an "episode," and it's been an exciting challenge.

    I do have question for you: How long is your average installment? And if the serial is successful, would you consider continuing it?

    P.S. I love the quality and beauty of the covers of your serial thus far.

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    1. Congrats on launching your new serial!!

      For me, episodes are 11-15k in length. They may get a little longer as the story progresses, but that's what it's looking like so far. I'm committed to the first nine-episode season. We'll see what happens after that - if people are enjoying the series, I'm definitely open to a second season. But I will probably take a break between first and second season to work on novels that are patiently waiting in the wings for me to write them. :)

      Thanks so much for the cover love! Steven Novak has done an outstanding job with them!

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  16. Susan is brilliant at this, and I tell ya, she's a wealth of information. Thanks for the interview.

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  17. I am so intrigued right now. I'm about to finish my first novella, which I know isn't exactly the same thing. But it is meant to be a 3 book series, each book a stand-alone, but continues the story in the next book. But a serial like television episodes...I like that. Did you say how many words each episode is? I'm going to pick up Delirium right now! Thanks Susan :)

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    1. Each ep is 11-15k. I know what you mean about novellas - I wrote my first last summer and really enjoyed the process. Thanks for picking up Delirium! I hope you enjoy it!

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  18. Ooops - I got too excited and forgot to say hi to Beth!

    Hi Beth, new follower here!

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